The Magazine

Grant at Vicksburg

A masterpiece of military art

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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In late March, the waters of the Mississippi receded earlier than expected. While the falling water aborted another of his engineering projects, it provided Grant an opportunity to undertake a far bolder operation. He planned to move his army down the west bank of the river, while Admiral David Porter’s transports and gunboats ran the gauntlet at De Soto Point. Once south of Vicksburg, the transports would carry the Army across the river, enabling Grant eventually to move on Vicksburg from the east. 

On March 29, Grant ordered one of his corps under the command of Maj. Gen. John McClernand to move from the Union base at Milliken’s Bend south along the west bank of the river to New Carthage, halfway between Vicksburg and Grand Gulf. Once McClernand had reached New Carthage, he was to prepare to cross the Mississippi. Because the river had fallen, the ground on the west shore was swampy—in the words of one soldier, “a vast bog, intersected by numerous bayous half flooded with water”—and difficult to traverse. Progress was slow. 

The plan entailed considerable risk, so much so that Sherman felt obligated to express his doubts in writing. The first problem was successfully coordinating all that needed to be accomplished, especially if the Confederates divined his intentions. The second was the difficulty of keeping McClernand supplied over the soggy Louisiana countryside on the west bank of the Mississippi. Even if the actions of the Army and Navy could be coordinated, Grant would face additional risks once he crossed the river. 

Grant’s plan called for a robust deception operation to focus the attention of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander, away from Grant’s main effort south of Vicksburg. As McClernand began his movement south, Grant dispatched a division of Sherman’s corps in the opposite direction to Greenville, Mississippi, about 70 miles upriver from Vicksburg. This division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, destroyed corn, carried off farm animals, and liberated about 1,000 slaves. 

The “Greenville Wallow” accomplished its military goal of distracting the Confederates from Grant’s main effort, causing Pemberton to send a force under Gen. Stephen Lee (no relation to Robert E. Lee) to deal with Steele. But it also reflected the new policy of the Lincoln administration of targeting Southern social and economic institutions, adumbrating Sherman’s “March to the Sea” after the capture of Atlanta in September 1864. “Rebellion has assumed that shape now that it can only terminate by the complete subjugation of the South or the overthrow of the Government,” Grant wrote to Steele. “It is our duty therefore to use every means to weaken the enemy by destroying their means of cultivating fields, and in every other way possible.”

While a threat to Braxton Bragg’s lines of communication in Tennessee drew the legendary Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest away from Mississippi, Grant launched another diversion. On April 17, Col. Benjamin Grierson led a force of 1,700 horsemen from La Grange, Tennessee, south into Mississippi. After tearing up the tracks of the Southern Railroad east of Jackson, Grierson decided to continue south, reaching Baton Rouge 16 days after leaving La Grange. This raid, the most spectacular Union cavalry operation of the war (fictionalized in the classic John Ford film The Horse Soldiers, starring John Wayne) and certainly the most strategically significant, created chaos in Pemberton’s department, occupying his attention for two weeks as Grant moved the main body of the Army of the Tennessee south of Vicksburg.  

 

On the moonless night of April 16, Adm. David Porter’s Mississippi Squadron made its first attempt to run the Rebel batteries at Vicksburg. Though battered by the Confederate gunners, all eight of Porter’s gunboats and two out of three of his transports made it through. A few nights later, five out of six transports successfully made the run. By the end of April, Grant had two of his three corps south of Vicksburg and, with the aid of Porter, was ready to cross the river at Grand Gulf. 

As Grant prepared to make his crossing, he ordered one more diversion. For two days, one of Sherman’s divisions conducted a demonstration in front of the Rebel positions on Haynes’ Bluff near Chickasaw Bayou, the site of Sherman’s repulse the previous December. As in the case of the Greenville expedition and Grierson’s raid, Pemberton took the bait, recalling 1,000 troops that had been sent to deal with whatever Grant was planning to do. Meanwhile, Porter’s gunboats bombarded the Confederate position at Grand Gulf.

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